Noh's rare talent discovered on the beach
From hitting golf balls on the beaches in Seoul to juggling his school books and shooting birdies on Asia’s finest fairways, Korean teen titan Noh Seung-yul could well turn out to be the region’s version of the legendary Seve Ballesteros.
Like the great Spaniard, who is a multiple major champion, the 17-year-old Noh learned the game on the sandy beaches near his home and has already produced moments of golf wizardry and mercurial form to launch into prominence on the burgeoning Asian Tour.
In six months, the slender Noh has taken Asia by storm, capturing the imagination of his peers and spectators with a flying start to his rookie season. Noh has posted three runner-up finishes from his first five starts on the Asian Tour that many have tipped the teenage phenom to achieve stardom much in the same vein as Korea’s most famous golfing icon, K.J. Choi.
Noh’s entry into professional golf nearly wasn’t by chance. His father was an enthusiast of the game and put a club in his son’s hands at the age of seven.
“We live in a house next to the beach. I was introduced to the game when I was seven and by the time I was 10, I would get up every morning and hit shots from out of the sand. I continued doing it until 2006 and I was happy to start that way,” said Noh.
“After school at around 1pm, I would head straight to the driving range and hit balls with my junior golf set that dad bought for me. My dad is a golf and tennis player, so he got me equipment for golf and wanted me to have a go,” explained the youngster.
What started out as a fun thing to do eventually became a passion for Noh.
“I used to hit balls for fun. Then I slowly became better at it. My interest wasn’t at school and if I had continued to focus on my studies, I knew I would lose out in golf. So I decided to shift my focus. During summer, I would hit balls on the beach from 4:30 to 6:30 in the morning before school starts and I would head to the driving range after classes,” he said.
By 11, he was competing in junior golf tournaments and by the time he was 14, Noh was mixing it up with the big boys in the national amateur circuit. He went on to claim 10 victories on the junior and amateur circuits, but none was more impressive than his ‘double’ when he claimed the Korean junior amateur and Korean amateur titles in 2005.
“I noticed that I was quite good at the game as I was competing at junior tournaments in Korea at the age of 11. By the age of 14, I was playing in national amateur tournaments. I would play five to six junior tournaments and 10-15 amateur events a year and I enjoyed the competition.”
He subsequently turned professional at a tender age of 16 in 2007 and with his father Gu-huieun on the bag, Noh earned his 2008 Asian Tour card through Qualifying School by placing tied 24th.
Then at the inaugural SAIL Open in India, he finished second behind Mark Brown of New Zealand and followed up on that performance at the Asian Tour International in Bangkok and Maekyung Open on home soil where he was the third round leader before losing in a play-off and missing the chance of becoming Asia’s youngest champion.
Noh’s bigger challenge apart from staying out from the hazards and bunkers is finding the time to complete his education in high school. “I am still in school but the school understands my situation and I catch up on my homework and school related matters when I am back in Korea. I’ve been able to balance golf and school as I’m a decent student with decent grades too,” he said.
While many of his classmates would be hooked on their iPods and PSPs, Noh’s stock in golf has risen considerably with his earnings swelling over US$100,000 this season, which has secured his full playing rights for the 2009 Asian Tour season.
However, the soft-spoken Noh is clearly not driven by the opportunity to make his millions from the world’s fairways. He is well-rounded as his father, who often caddies for him on the Asian Tour, plays a big role in shaping his career.
While he possesses a work-in-progress golf swing that will in time become better, Noh has shown a knack of performing under pressure. He attributes his strong mental game to coach Choi Myung-ho.
“He told me to block everything out and said that when I’m playing, it was just me and the golf ball, and nothing else. I’ve adopted this approach and it has become second nature to me. I never had to undergo any mental training as I rely on the words of wisdom from my coach,” said Noh.
Noh attributed compatriots Park Jun-won and Kim Kyung-tae, who has achieved success on the Asian Tour, for inspiring him to take the challenge on the Asian Tour although Korean men golfers are not renowned as good travelers in the game.
“Park and Kim gave me the motivation to improve my game. I also played a lot of golf with Kim at home. After he won the Maekyung Open last year, I wanted to keep up with him. He enjoyed a good maiden season on the Asian Tour and I took that as an inspiration for me to emulate, if not better his performance,” said Noh.
Noh has knocked hard on the winner’s door early in his professional life, coming agonizingly close at the Maekyung Open, but it was a top-10 performance in the co-sanctioned Volvo China Open which boosted his confidence.
“I am pleasantly surprised with how well I have started the season. I never imagined that I would have such a solid start as the standard is strong on the Asian Tour. It shows that age doesn’t matter. I have the drive to become the best and that encourages me to practice harder,” he said.
Noh’s self belief is a testament to his positive approach in life. He has big dreams of joining Choi on the lucrative US PGA Tour in the near future. “When I was a national player, I had access to mental coaching, which taught me to meditate. One of the processes was to sit with my hands on my knees and to erase all thoughts from my mind.
“I would have to picture how I wanted my life to be and picture my goals. I started this meditation process three years ago which takes about five minutes. I do it when I’m back in Korea but not when I’m at a tournaments because I have so many other things to do.
“My ultimate goal is to compete on the US PGA Tour and to succeed there, just like K.J. This is a learning curve for me on the way to my ultimate goal. I enjoy the game but it’s not so much passion but more on a goal I have set which I want to achieve.”
July 16, 2008